We Turned Our Backyard Into an Organic Food Forest

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Aaron and Susan von FrankAaron and Susan von Frank -- along with ducks Margaret Thrasher and Jackson -- live on a totally edible property.
By Aaron von Frank as told to Alden Wicker

In its MoneyMic series, LearnVest hands over the podium to people with controversial views about money. Today, one man shares how he went from being an organic grocery store shopper to a gardener who grows all of his own produce.

My wife, Susan, and I have always loved healthy food, especially the fresh, vine-ripened kind -- which is why we routinely spent upwards of $400 a week scouting organic grocers for the tastiest produce.

But it wasn't until we accepted a dinner invitation from our friend Eliza -- a master naturalist who grows all of her own food -- that we realized just how amazing organic eating could really be.

As Eliza gave us a tour of her garden, Susan and I spotted these odd little husked fruits called ground cherries under a small shrub. Once we tasted them, we were blown away by their delicious, pineapple-citrus flavor. That's when Eliza told us about the secret world of wacky and unusual heirloom foods most people don't know about -- unless you grow them yourself.

The Makings of Our Own 'Food Forest'

When we bought a house the following year on a three-quarter-acre lot in Greenville, South Carolina, Susan was excited to try our hand at gardening, just like Eliza.

I wasn't quite as gung-ho -- I was more worried about fitting in with the neighbors -- but Susan insisted. So we agreed to start by turning the far backyard, bordering a quarter-acre of forest, into a food-growing space.

Not wanting to spend too much on the setup, we got scrappy. When a developer was discarding some stones at a nearby construction site, we used them to make raised soil beds. We spent only a few bucks for each packet of organic, heirloom seeds. And since we were starting with a small space, we kept it fairly basic, planting carrots, tomatoes, ground cherries, peppers, eggplant and squash.

Eliza shared all of her hard-won knowledge for successfully growing plants. One of our favorites: To have the best yielding tomatoes, snap off all but the top leaf section on your seedlings, and then bury the stem in the soil up to about 2 inches below these leaves.

Trees, Shrubs, Plants and Fungi in the Landscape

It didn't take long before we were hooked -- and within three years, we'd turned a full half-acre of our property into our edible food forest. Today, we have fruit trees, nut trees, herbs, veggies and even fungi that we've integrated into a beautiful landscape.

During the warm-weather months, we grow grapes, peaches, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, potatoes, corn, tomatillos, and, of course, ground cherries. We also produce some more interesting varieties, like cape gooseberries, Native American corn in all colors and garden huckleberries, which make for great pies.

In the colder months our production decreases a bit, but we still grow lettuce, kale, arugula, cilantro, spinach and carrots under hoop houses, which are light frames covered in plastic that we can build in a couple of minutes. In an average year, we harvest thousands of pounds of food. Squash alone yields hundreds per week in the summertime.

Just $300 a Year for All We Can Eat

We also have five heritage breed ducks, which are better at producing eggs than chickens. If you've ever ordered crème brûlée at a high-end restaurant, you've probably eaten duck eggs -- chefs prefer them for their rich flavor. That's part of what we love about our gardening hobby: We have access to fine-dining ingredients right in our backyard.

All in all, our homegrown foods cost about $300 to produce each year, which includes the cost of seed-starting materials and liquid fertilizer. And as perennial plants get bigger -- berry bushes, fruit trees, asparagus, and sorrel -- they require less care and produce more food.

Most of the produce sold in stores is generic and relatively bland, so to put a number on how much money we save is like comparing apples to oranges -- no pun intended! But if we were to buy comparable food from an organic grocer, it would probably cost us $1,500 to $2,000 a month for the same quality, quantity, and variety of food.

That savings frees up money in our budget to spend on other foods we enjoy but don't grow ourselves, such as high-quality meat that we get from local farmers for about $100 a month, as well as milk, cheese and butter. We even purchase our coffee from a friend who has an organic microbrewery in Asheville, North Carolina.

You're probably thinking that tending to this massive food forest would require a lot of work -- but, surprisingly, we don't have to do much to maintain it.

Reaping What We Sow -- and Spreading the Love

We've developed a great understanding of natural ecology and the strategies that let the garden take care of itself. For instance, we use wood chip mulch, which prevents weeds, provides fertilizer and equalizes our soil moisture.

Aaron and Susan Von FrankAaron and Susan Von Frank tend to a bed of cilantro, arugula, kale, and garlic in their backyard garden.
Basically, this takes away all the tedious tasks people dislike about gardening, like weeding, plowing and watering. Even during last summer's drought, we had to only water twice.

Over the course of the year, we probably spend just one to two hours a week on garden tasks, like spreading mulch or pruning the fruit trees. During the summer and spring, when things are really growing, we'll spend more time harvesting. With so much food coming in, you have to pick it every day. But we view that time as an investment-in our health and our relationship. Working in the garden is a fun couples activity, plus it allows us to get in a bit of exercise.

Another amazing benefit is how good we feel as a result of eating such healthy foods. While many people eat meals and are lethargic for hours after, we feel an energetic boost and mental clarity throughout the day.

Medicinal Benefits, Too

We also produce a lot of plants that, when eaten regularly, have medicinal benefits. Elderberries -- clusters of blackberries grown on bushes -- are among our favorites, and have been shown to protect against the flu.

In a health food store, a bottle of elderberry syrup costs about $15. We harvested 30 pounds of berries last year, and made gallons of it that lasted us all winter. I haven't been sick in years.

A natural byproduct of growing our own food is that we have tons left over, so we're constantly handing it out to our neighbors, friends and families to make sure nothing gets wasted.

And whatever we don't eat or give away when it's fresh, we preserve. If we have extra raspberries, blackberries, elderberries or grapes, we throw them into a blender, lay them on dehydrating racks and ten make fruit jerky.

Hobby Turns Into a Business

Inspired by our desire to keep sharing the love, Susan and I decided to turn our hobby into a real source of income last June. In addition to our full-time jobs running a marketing company together, we started a monthly organic seed subscription box service that includes some of the more interesting heirloom varieties we love.

Since starting our business, we've been fielding a lot of questions from people about how to start food gardens of their own-and we always suggest starting small. Yes, our whole yard is edible now, but it wasn't always that way. You can break yourself in by starting a patio garden with just a few pots, and expand as time allows.

And don't be discouraged if you don't have a lot of land. There are plenty of options coming out now for apartment dwellers, including aquaponic systems, home garden systems and grow lights. Lastly, if you mess something up-don't worry! Even we didn't know what we were doing the first year. We overwatered, we underwatered, and a lot of our plants died that year, as a result. But that's normal -- growing your own food is like riding a bike. You fall over, get up and figure out how to do it better next time.

In the end, it's not just about saving money on food, or being healthier. It's about the happiness we get from eating something we grew, and the good we're putting out in the world by sharing our organic food and seeds with other people. You can't put a price on that.
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